On the Record

National Security and Democratic Politics

Michael E. O’Hanlon

ASMAN: Many leading Democrats have been loudly voicing their opposition to the president’s national security initiatives like the Patriot Act and of course those wiretaps. Well, now some centrist Democrats want them all to just pipe down, fearing the attacks may hurt their party and help the GOP in 2006 and beyond.

Mike O’Hanlon joins us now. He’s a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution. Good to see you, Michael.

Centrist Democrats, let’s be clear here, besides Joe Lieberman. We know he is a centist Democrat who favors the war in Iraq, who are we talking about besides Lieberman?

O’HANLON: Well, I certainly think most of the people who have been mentioned as possible candidates for the presidential race in 2008: everybody from Mark Warner, Tom Vilsack, Hillary Rodham Clinton, most of these people are fairly centrist—Evan Byah I should add—on national security. And they feel that the party has to be careful about how it comes across substantively as well as politically.

I also think…

ASMAN: Go ahead. I’m sorry. Finish your point.

O’HANLON: Well, I was going to add a couple of members in the Congress, Steny Hoyer, who as you know is the number two ranking Democrat in the House, and some other people like John Spratt. Nancy Pelosi is one side, but Jane Harmon is more with Spratt, Ike Skelton, Steny Hoyer, some of these people, I think, are more concerned about a centrist philosophy and a centrist aagenda partly for the political purpose of not seeming to be not too left of center, but also because that’s what they believe.

ASMAN: OK. So it’s more than just one or two people we’re talking about. Because that’s what—when Bob Beckel is on, he says, hey, you can only point to Lieberman. But there are a few more.

Now, tell us, look at Hillary, for example, she has got ambitions even beyond 2006 obviously. Where will she end up? Is she going to be drawn in by the leftist move of her party or will she stay in the center?

O’HANLON: Well, that’s a tough one. But I think the main point here there is a role for legitimate debate about eavesdropping issues, about some of the stipulations in the Patriot Act. But speaking for myself, not for anybody else, I would simply say, look, the Patriot Act is 90, 95 percent solid. It’s a good piece of legislation. There are some details we need to worry about. And many Republicans I know are concerned about some of the issues of big brother watching you. So it’s not just a Democratic issue.

But the Democratic party has to be careful not to seem like it is so worried about the Bush administration that it places its concerns about the Bush administration on a higher level than its concerns about terrorists. And I think sometimes the rhetoric is a little bit tendencious, and makes Democrats seem like they are worried too much about that last five percent.

It’s important thing to get right in the Patriot Act. The act needs some improvement. But it is a good piece of legislation and we should say so.

ASMAN: But, you know, you point out the obvious question that a lot of Americans have, is it more important for some of these Democrats to be re-elected and to have Republicans lose than it is to secure the nation? Is that what’s going through the minds of the voters?

O’HANLON: I don’t know. There is, of course, a difference between presidential politics and the politics in some of the individual constituencies. And you are probably right to suggest that in some congressional districts, the electorate is more left leaning.

But I’m convinced that for Democrats, doing what’s right is actually the same thing as doing what is good politically. In other words, Democrats need to resist the temptation to keep criticizing President Bush endlessly, even where he deserves some criticism. It’s important to also develop a positive national security aagenda, and to recognize some good ideas like the Patriot Act where they exist.

ASMAN: But how will they differentiate themselves if they do support that from the president?

O’HANLON: Well, I will give you one thought. First of all, they don’t need to differentiate themselves from the president so much, of course, because he is not running again. But in terms of 2006 and 2008, one big idea would be on energy policy.

How can we ween ourselves from Middle East oil. There are some very interesting developments in byo mas technology and a lot of other technologies that 25 years ago did not play so well when Jimmy Carter tried to push them.

But today, times have changed. We don’t like depending on the Saudis quite as much for our oil. We have got big global warming issues. We have got problems with terrorism. We have got problems with politics in the Middle East region. I think Americans are more open to a debate about not getting ourselves—go ahead.

ASMAN: But I’m just wondering if that is not kind of a—no offense—but kind of wonky debate that most Americans when you compare that kind of a debate with the question of national security, national security is going to win every time.

O’HANLON: Well, I mean this as a national security issue. Because I think we can ween ourselves from some of our dependence on Mid-East oil. Not completely, but somewhat.

But I hear your point. But sometimes, if there is not a big issue to capitalize on, you are better off acknowledging that and not trying to create an issue where none exists. And you always have to be against the Republicans—if the Republicans have a good idea, you should be with them.

ASMAN: Final question, Michael, is there any Democrat, and I know you want to focus on outside of the Bush administration, but is there any Democrat who you could point to who is more trusted on national security issues than President Bush?

O’HANLON: Well, I certainly think that there have been some recently. It may not be your question. But Senator Sam Nunn, for example, to me was probably the best single person we have had on national security in this country in the last 20 years, maybe up there with Brent Scowcroft, probably my two favorites, Bill Perry is another.

Looking to the future, I think some of these governors and Senator Clinton have some pretty good instincts. So I hope they develope them in the future.

ASMAN: Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. Michael, good to see you. Thanks very much for coming in.

Many opponents of the war in Iraq accuse the president of misleading the country. Well, one newspaper looked at nine arguments, the main ones, that the White House made for going to war and their verdict is coming up.

Also, we are keeping an eye on those deadly grass fires blazing through Texas and Oklahoma. At least four folks have been killed, more than 100 homes have been destroyed. The update is next right here on THE BIG STORY.